Willis acts on Black and White every day and earns $90 for his role. He advances to Generic Asian Man Number Three and Generic Asian Man Number Two. He practices his lines, which are all explanations that he killed the man “for [his] family’s honor.” Eventually, he becomes Generic Man Number One, and he knows his new life is close now.
Though Willis is gaining clout as an actor and theoretically getting cast in increasingly important parts, each new part is really just a different variation on the same racial stereotyping, riffing on a tired trope that Asian people act on their obligation to bring “honor” to their family.
INT. UNMARKED POLICE CAR. It’s Monday morning. Black and White are in the front of the shot, and Willis, the “Special Guest Star,” is in the background. Green and Turner engage in flirty banter, and it almost makes Willis forget his lines to see them behave so carelessly around Dead Asian Guy’s body. Then they shift to the matter at hand, pondering whether the crime is gang-related or an “honor killing.” Special Guest Star (Willis) interjects and says neither is true—Dead Asian Guy wasn’t that kind of guy. Turner shrugs him off and tells him to get back in the restaurant and get them some beef and broccoli. Turner’s racism appalls Green, and she apologizes. Turner seems embarrassed by his own behavior. She asks Special Guest Star if Dead Asian Man had any enemies; Special Guest Star says no.
Having secured the role of Special Guest Star, Willis is ever closer to achieving his goal of becoming Kung Fu Guy. Yet his excitement at this isn’t strong enough for him to ignore the troubling nature of his work—namely, the fact that he's acting on (and therefore legitimizing, in a sense) the problematic stereotypes and tired tropes that Black and White gives voice to and the overt racism that some of its characters (like Turner in this scene) exhibit.
Green and Turner flirt some more. Willis (as Special Guest Star) interrupts their banter to announce that Older Brother is missing, which gets their attention. Special Guest Star explains that everyone knew and adored Older Brother—that nobody could beat him. The last detail especially gets the detectives’ attention—they think it might be a possible motive.
Willis’s announcement here advances one of the book’s most important subplots: the “disappearance” of Older Brother, who by all accounts seems not to have disappeared so much as left Chinatown in search of a life where he wasn’t doomed to playing one-dimensional, limiting parts like Kung Fu Guy.
Attractive Officer enters and hands Green a paper. Green reads it and announces that Dead Asian Man’s last known contact was with Ming-Chen Wu. Green asks Willis (as Special Guest Star) if he’s related to Wu, and he replies that they’re “not all related,” but yes, he does know Wu. A gong sounds as Special Guest Star leads the detectives to Wu.
Ming-Chen Wu is Willis’s father’s real name, though the novel has only alluded to this in passing; mostly, people refer to him by the characters he's played, like Sifu or Old Asian Man. Willis’s irritated response that they’re “not all related” alludes to a racist assumption that people of the same race all look alike, though in an ironic twist, it turns out that Willis actually does know Wu, since he’s his father.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE—FRONT OF HOUSE. Willis (as Special Guest Star) enters the restaurant behind the detectives and looks around the dimly lit restaurant filled with attractive extras seated at tables. He doesn’t see anyone he knows and gestures for Green and Turner to follow him into the kitchen.
The detail of the attractive extras seated at tables humorously reminds readers that Willis is on the set of a TV show, acting out a part; it’s necessary to do this because the novel often blurs the line between the world of the TV show and reality, a narrative technique that conveys how Willis gradually internalizes the stereotypes and tropes that Black and White imposes on him.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE—KITCHEN. The kitchen is full of people Willis knows. This is the moment Willis has long waited for: coming back a “star,” or at least as Special Guest Star—one of the few speaking parts an Asian man can get. Willis approaches Old Asian Man, who’s at the deep fryer, to have a word with him in private. Willis can’t believe Old Asian Man is now reduced to a part that needs subtitles when he used to fight dragons on the rooftops of Chinatown. Speaking in Taiwanese, he tells Old Asian Man that the police have questions. Old Asian Man acknowledges this discreetly.
Even at this early point in the story, Willis seems to acknowledge that the prestige he gains with each new, better role he plays is far less impressive than the prestige that comes with being a famous (white) movie star. Symbolically, the lesser fame Willis can achieve as an Asian actor reflects the limits to his ability to assimilate into American culture as an Asian person. He can be more assimilated than other Asian people, the novel implies, but he’ll never achieve the standing of a complete (white) American.
Willis tells his dad that he’s working with Green and Turner now and that it’s a good thing. Old Asian Man praises Willis but looks skeptical and disappointed; he can’t believe the son who got all As in school is now working as Generic Asian Man. Turner asks what’s going on between Special Guest Star and Old Asian Man—what “the real story” is. Willis wants to confide in Green and Turner about his “actual struggles” but doesn’t want to risk losing his job. So instead, he says that he was just telling his dad that Older Brother is missing.
Once more, the book blurs the line between the world of the show and Willis’s reality. On the one hand, readers may interpret this dialogue as a scripted exchange between Special Guest Star and Old Asian Man, in which Special Guest Star admits that he’s now working with the detectives. But another interpretation is that the real Willis is admitting to his real father that he’s finally gotten a better part on the show—trying to convince his father that even though the role requires him to effectively stereotype himself, it's a good thing because it means he’s rising through the ranks and advancing his career. Old Asian Man’s disappointed response, of course, suggests that he thinks the anguish that accepting this role will inspire in Willis isn’t worth the fame. And he’s also upset that Willis is betraying his Asian roots to gain the acceptance of his American home.
Turner asks if Old Asian Man will help them, and Willis (as Special Guest Star) says yes; Old Asian Man used to be a Kung Fu star—and he could teach Turner a thing or two. This offends Turner, and he moves to fight Special Guest Star. Green stops him, reminding him that they need to cooperate with “the Asian Guy.” Willis prickles at being reduced to Asian Guy, even as a Special Guest Star, and he calls out Green. But Turner counters that it was Willis who took the part in the first place. He says that climbing your way up the system only strengthens the system, therefore Willis is somewhat to blame for whatever racism comes his way.
Turner’s angry response to Willis’s apparent attack on his masculinity stereotypes him as much as it stereotypes Old Asian Man—he’s simultaneously defending the assumption that Black men like himself are especially manly and that Asian men like Old Asian Man are effeminate by comparison. The (apparently) off-script interaction between Willis and the detectives expands on this idea, with Turner accurately pointing out that Willis’s participation in the system does strengthen the system. His remark, of course, reveals his own complicity in that system as well, as he’s climbed his way up the system to play a part that effectively fetishizes the “coolness” of Black people.
Willis (as Special Guest Star) claims that Turner, too, is part of the system: his name is in the show’s title. Turner counters that it’s not his name in the title—it’s “Black,” which reduces him to “a category,” even if he does have a lead role. He says that Special Guest Star has no idea where he (Turner) came from, all the hard work he had to do to get where he is today. And if Special Guest Star doesn’t like how they do things here, he can go back to China.
Turner is making a valid point here: Willis, in remaining hyper focused on the fact that Turner has a lead part on the show, loses sight of the fact that Turner’s role (and Green’s too, for that matter) stereotypes Blackness as much as Willis’s part plays on Asian stereotypes.
Willis (as Special Guest Star) lunges at Turner. Turner might be big and muscular, but Willis has been working on his Kung Fu. Willis wonders if Older Brother would fight Turner. But before he can decide what to do, Green moves in and breaks up the fight. Special Guest Star accuses Turner of calling him “a model minority.” Turner doesn’t disagree but reminds Special Guest Star that Green just called him Asian Guy.
The model minority myth is an argument that draws on the perceived collective success of Asian people to downplay the role that systemic racism plays in the struggles of other minority groups. When Turner reminds Willis that Green just called him “Asian Guy,” he’s implying that even if model minorities think they’re benefitting from having white people (like Green) on their side, this perceived empowerment is just an illusion. In reality, people who weaponize the model minority myth to downplay systemic oppression still see so-called “model minorities” as inferior, as (Turner suggests) Green demonstrated when she called Willis “Asian Guy.”
Green turns to Old Asian Man and thanks him for his cooperation, her voice louder than normal, almost like she’s shouting. Turner asks Old Asian Man when he last saw Older Brother. Old Asian Man says it’s been months—they had an argument about money after Old Asian Man refused to accept Older Brother’s offer of money. Turner and Green decide Older Brother must be involved in a money-laundering scheme. They ask where the money in Chinatown is. Special Guest Star (Willis) looks at Old Asian Man, knowing he’ll be disappointed in him for what he’s about to do. Then he tells Green and Turner that he’ll show them where the money is.
The loud voice with which Green addresses Old Asian Man once more shows that her earlier attempts at cultural sensitivity were mere performance. Presumably, she’s speaking this way because she assumes he doesn’t speak English, but other than the fact that it’s racist for her to assume that he can’t speak English, if she was really interested in overcoming a language barrier, she’d speak more slowly to give a non-fluent English speaker time to actively comprehend what she’s saying.
INT. CHINATOWN GAMBLING DEN. Fatty Choy (as Lowlife Oriental) is at the door. Willis (as Special Guest Star) approaches him with Green and Turner in tow, and Fatty Choy whispers his congratulations to Willis. But Turner threatens to arrest Fatty Choy for a number of other offenses, so Fatty Choy angrily steps aside to let Green, Turner, and Willis walk through the door after Turner threatens to arrest Fatty Choy for a number of other offenses. The gambling den is full of cigarette smoke. Scantily clad Asian women deliver drinks to sketchy-looking Asian men. But the people only look sketchy to an outsider—not to Willis, who grew up with most of them. In reality, they’re all just immigrants who get good grades and are still trying to make it big. The owner of the place looks down on the newcomers, eyeing them closely.
The disparity in Willis’s personal sense of the gambling den’s patrons and the way they’re made to appear on the show illustrates how racial bias and stereotyping can warp one’s sense of reality, projecting dangerous, exotic characteristics onto people who in fact are just ordinary folks trying to make ends meet like anyone else. Fatty Choy, for instance, is really just a goofy prankster, but his role on Black and White as “Lowlife Oriental” exaggerates these characteristics to make them seem nefarious when they’re actually harmless.
INT. GAMBLING DEN-BOSS’S OFFICE—CONTINUOUS. Willis (as Special Guest Star) leads Turner and Green to the boss’s office. Young Fong is here, already back at work, though he’s still grieving his father’s (Old Fong) death. Willis tries to say hi to Young Fong, but he maintains a professional, impersonal demeanor. He’s playing the role of Chinatown Mini Boss—a villain, but not the villain. He’s been cast for his slender, feminine features, which Western culture views as “the opposite of masculine” and “creepy.”
This is another scene where the book intentionally blurs the line between Willis’s reality and his role on Black and White to comment on the effects of racial stereotyping. Young Fong’s refusal to break character to reciprocate Willis’s (off-script) greeting symbolizes how people can internalize stereotypes and lose their sense of self. Willis perhaps hasn’t been acting long enough to get to this point, but if he continues to get cast in increasingly important roles, then perhaps it’s only a matter of time before he, too, loses himself.
Turner forces himself inside the office. Mini Boss (Young Fong) calmly offers to let Turner “sample [Chinatown’s] exotic flavors,” gesturing toward the scantily clad women downstairs. Then he presses a button, and a woman (Karen) steps into the office. Willis freezes as he locks eyes with the woman. He asks if she knows him, but she ignores him. Green announces that Willis (as Special Guest Star) is working for them. Special Guest Star, nervous, explains to Mini Boss that Older Brother is missing; Mini Boss knows. Green relays the story about Older Brother getting into a fight with his father about money; she thinks Mini Boss was involved with whatever money Older Brother came into. Mini Boss explains that Older Brother doesn’t care about money, which Special Guest Star confirms.
Young Fong’s characterization of the women downstairs casts Asian women as “exotic” prizes for westerners’ consumption. This passage thus reinforces how the world of Black and White forces its Asian characters to participate in the stereotyping of Asian people. Willis’s suspicion that he knows the mystery woman builds tension; at any rate, this scene seems to suggest that whoever she is, she’ll be important later on. Green, despite her performance of anti-racism, seems determined to cast Older Brother as a dubious character who couldn’t have come into money through honest means. She doesn’t explicitly say that she suspects this due to his race, but the implication is that since Older Brother is Asian and these supposed criminals are also Asian, he must know and be in cahoots with them.
Young Fong (as Mini Boss) continues, explaining that Older Brother had a plan, but money wasn’t a part of it. Green threatens to arrest Mini Boss for all the illegal activity that happens in the building if he doesn’t cooperate. Mini Boss asks for immunity, but Green and Turner say they can’t do that. Fong gives a signal, and bottles start to be smashed downstairs, and suddenly there’s “kung fu breaking out all over the place,” and shots ring out. Fong leaves through a secret exit, leaving Willis behind with the mysterious beautiful woman (Karen).
The world of Black and White contains so many fantastical elements and unbelievable characters, yet it draws the line at granting Mini Boss immunity, which apparently would be too ludicrous an outcome for viewers of the show to buy. This drives home one of the show’s core aims—to uphold the status quo, and one way to do that is to ensure that nobody cuts any of the show’s minority characters any slack.
The woman instructs Willis to duck, though it’s not in the script. He does, and she introduces herself as Karen, which isn’t in the script either. Willis introduces himself as Willis Wu. Just then, Fatty Choy enters the room. Willis does some kung fu moves and kicks the gun out of Fatty Choy’s hand. Everyone can hardly believe what’s just happened, Willis included. Maybe even Sifu would be proud of him.
Karen’s willingness to break character and introduce herself to Willis sets her apart from other characters, like Mini Boss, who seems to struggle to differentiate between his character on the show and the person he is in real life. Willis, on the other hand, remains committed to his acting, even if he sometimes recognizes its problematic nature—he demonstrates his commitment here in the immense inner pride he feels after performing impressive kung fu moves.
Green breaks character to applaud Special Guest Star (Willis), though Turner (also breaking character) grumbles about Willis deviating from the script. Turner resumes his acting, roughing Fatty Choy up to try to get him to talk. Fatty Choy and Willis speak to each other in fake Chinese, then in real Cantonese, Fatty Choy saying that he's not going tell them anything. Special Guest Star says Fatty Choy doesn’t know anything. The mysterious woman says Special Guest Star is lying. Willis turns to her, stunned, and Green explains that the woman is Detective Karen Lee, an undercover agent. Willis thanks her for saving his life, and she compliments his footwork and says they could maybe use him in undercover vice—maybe even as Kung Fu Guy. Then she whispers in Willis’s ear to let her talk to the detectives.
Fatty Choy and Willis’s “fake Chinese” reminds characters that the show Black and White is intended for non-Asian audiences; viewers at home won’t be able to distinguish between the nonsense language that Fatty Choy and Willis speak at first and the authentic language they speak afterward. The interaction with Karen and Willis is rather ambiguous—from Willis’s shocked response, it’s not clear whether she’s breaking character when she implicitly calls him out for communicating with Fatty Choy in real Cantonese. Her choice to whisper in Willis’s ear is equally ambiguous. The strange and uncertain nature of their interaction in this scene builds tension and perhaps foreshadows that Karen will be important to the story at some later point.
Lee turns to Turner and Green and tells them that Fatty Choy knows something but will never talk. Turner, nodding, notes, “Honor is very important to these people.” Lee grumbles about Turner and Green crashing her investigation and letting Fong get away, though she holds up an Hermès bag, explaining that it’s the money: Young Fong was running a counterfeit business, “Chinatown’s number one export.” Lee turns to Willis and tells him he knows where they make the bags. Willis doesn’t, but he realizes that this is just how the story goes and that Lee will show him what to do.
Once more, Turner reveals his (or his character’s) racism when he perpetuates a stereotype about Asian people (“these people”) and their fixation on “honor.” The line about counterfeit being “Chinatown’s number one export” has multiple meanings, simultaneously referencing the real industry of Chinatown counterfeiting, as well as figuratively alluding to the fake stereotyped characters that the Chinatown of Black and White churns out.
Willis looks at Lee and feels like he’s going to melt. Just then, he realizes that his side is covered with blood, and then his legs give out. Green screams and calls for someone to get help. She kneels beside Special Guest Star (Willis) and thanks him for his help, promising that he’s “brought honor to [his] family.” Special Guest Star is confused, how can he be dying so soon? He only just got a good part and met Karen.
This is yet another scene in which the narrative intentionally blurs the scripted plot of Black and White with the unscripted plot of Willis’s reality. Willis, of course, is not really dying—his character has just been written out of the show. Metaphorically, his “early” death further suggests the limits of assimilation; mainstream America (which Black and White symbolizes) will let Willis participate in the show—but only temporarily, and he certainly can’t be the star.
Karen looks grim. She tells Willis she wishes things didn’t have to end this way, but he’s “an Asian Man,” and this is just how his story has to go. She hopes to meet again someday. But Willis knows it’ll always be this way: being “yellow in America” means you’re always the “guest star, forever the guest.” Then the scene fades to black.
When Karen tells Willis that his story must end this way because he’s “an Asian Man,” she’s further emphasizing his limited ability to assimilate into mainstream American culture. He can get on the show, and he can even be a “guest star,” but the show’s production crew and viewers (who in this case symbolize mainstream American culture in a broader sense) will never see him as belonging there in a permanent sense.